Nic Pizzolatto constructed True Detective’s plot from a pair of sources, the first of which occurred in Ponchataoula, Louisiana, in 2005, when a former pastor told police that his church had turned from “Jesus to the devil.” He claimed they’d been holding Satanic rituals for years that involved animal sacrifice and the molestation of children. Or, as Jezebel put it in its headline, “Did a Horrifying Real Satanic Sex Abuse Case Inspire True Detective?”
While the case in Ponchataoula generated headlines about Satanic cults on both sides of the Atlantic, the details of Satanic worship were wholly invented. Accounts of black robes, blood orgies, and the rest appear to have been an “atrocity tale” in which accused child molesters sought to gain sympathy with claims of Satanic brainwashing. Buried in the bottom of one story about the case was a report from an FBI agent that no pentagrams or animal blood were found at the church—even with a “cult informant” guiding the investigation.
The second source is the book The King in Yellow, written in 1895 by Robert W. Chambers. Part of the fin de siècle decadence movement, this work is an anthology of horror stories about a fictional play called “The King in Yellow,” which renders anyone who reads it insane. Chambers presents snippets of this play that allude to a forbidden city called Carcosa—a trope first introduced by Ambrose Bierce in 1891. The King in Yellow mythology has since been invoked by H.P. Lovecraft and The Blue Oyster Cult.
Religion scholar Philip Jenkins has suggested these two sources—contemporary Satanic Panic and the “weird tales” of pulp horror—are connected. He suggests that it was the weird tales authors of the 1920s, notably Lovecraft and Herbert Gorman, who first introduced the idea of secret, murderous cults into the American consciousness. These authors combined the fascination for “superstitious rural folk” among America’s newly urbanized population with Margaret Murray’s thesis in The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921) to spin stories of Pagan cults surviving in the backwoods of America conducting sacrifices in secret.
Weird tales have a way of coming to life. Chambers’ idea of a forbidden text that renders the reader insane influenced Lovecraft’s imaginary text “The Necronomicon.” Author Kent David Kelly has dubbed this literary device, an “imaginary source of revelation,” noting that one of the key features of texts like “The King in Yellow” or “The Necronomicon” is that they urge the reader to question whether the tale has a non-fictional foundation.
Indeed, self-proclaimed counter-cult authorities such as William Schnoebelen and John Todd have insisted that the Necronomicon is an authentic text used by Satanists to conduct human sacrifices. In some cases these claims have been presented to law enforcement during special seminars on “occult crime.” This is why analysis of shows like True Detective matters; sociologists know that fiction shapes the “plausibility structures” through which people assess stories of Satanic cults and other fantastic claims.
But while these two mythologies have influenced each other, they present “evil” in very different ways. Chambers and Lovecraft are the masters of “cosmic horror.” “The King in Yellow” is dangerous because it threatens to destroy our understanding of the world; it opens the door to madness and the “wholly other.” In his work on religion and horror, Douglas Cowan explains that Lovecraftian stories appeal to “the fear of a change in the sacred order.”
By contrast, the modern mythology of Satanic panic reaffirms a vision of spiritual warfare, a distinction Timothy Beale described as the difference between a deified monster and a demonized monster. Confronting Cthulhu or The King in Yellow is an apocalyptic revelation that inspires awe and madness, but confronting a cult that murders women and children just makes us feel righteous about our convictions.
Throughout the series Pizzolatto dropped hints in his scripts that Hart and Cohle were pursuing a deified monster who would change the sacred order. There are Cohle’s existentialist musings that we are puppets being observed from a “fourth dimensional perspective,” and the cultist muttering that “time is a flat circle.”
When Pizzolatto explained in an interview that he was drawn to The King in Yellow mythology because True Detective is “a story about a story” I assumed that beyond the surface plot of two heroes hunting down a murderous cult, even this pursuit of a demonized monster would ultimately result in a moment of “cosmic horror.” In fact, when governor Tuttle was the first to raise the specter of Satanic cults, I had hoped the show would use the weird tale mythology to offer a critical look at the claims of Satanic panic.
But in the final episode, we find no hint of what Pizzolatto called “deranged enlightenment.” How long has the cult been active in Louisiana? What is the significance of Carcosa? Apparently these questions are irrelevant. Billy Childress is just an ugly, insane brute who destroys innocence because he’s evil. (In the words of his half-sister and lover: “He’s worse than anybody.”)
The heroes also shed their own moral ambiguity as Cohle’s stabbing grants him a kind of gnosis that his synesthesia and drug use could not. He realizes that there’s a difference between good and evil, that his daughter waits for him in heaven, and that all of his existentialist angst was wrong. We are left with a cosmos that is starkly Manichaean, neatly divided between good and evil. Instead of a hideous Lovecraftian revelation, the series ends with what Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe” in which evil is suddenly overcome at the last moment.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending. But the final message of True Detective reinforces a dangerous mythology that’s already endemic in American popular culture. The brutal misogyny of the heroes, their willingness to commit all manner of felonies—this was not a Nietzchean tale of those who hunt monsters becoming monsters themselves. Instead, this is a moral universe where anything is justified as long as your opponent is “truly” evil and good “gains some territory.” This is about as far from Lovecraft’s cosmic horror as one can get.